A year is a long time in drone technology, it seems. 2016 has seen regular old drones turn into flying cell towers, 25-minute flight times stretched out to 45-minute flight times, and now 100-strong flying formations turned into 500-strong choreographed light shows. Intel has smashed its own record-breaking spectacle from a year ago, setting 500 drones in flight simultaneously to show off the capabilities of its new firework-killing aircraft, the Shooting Star.
Intel only announced its first commercial drone last month, the Falcon 8+ designed for surveying and mapping. But apparently it was busy behind the scenes prior to that, building obstacle-avoidance technologies and drone-development kits to try to inspire new applications in the field.
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One part of its push into the area has been exploring how drones can be used to create a new kind of light show. Earlier this year it revealed it had used 100 LED-equipped drones flying in a pre-programmed formation and synchronized to the sounds of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to light up the night sky, claiming a Guinness World Record for the Most Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) airborne simultaneously in the process.
Now it has outdone itself in a big way. It's latest Guinness World Record-winning spectacle involves the use of 500 drones flying simultaneously, piloted by one person using a single laptop. Intel says a few improvements and advances were necessary to achieve the feat.
The weight of the drones has been cut from more than 2 lb (900 g) to 0.6 lb (280 g) thanks to a much lighter plastic and foam frame. A new flight controller, which is the same used to fly the 18-rotor Volocopter, means a light show can now be arranged in a few days rather than five months, and allows for a much higher level of precision. For the previous Drone 100 effort, Intel's programmers had to map a path for each drone manually, but the company says the new software can take just about any picture and use algorithms to determine the fastest flight path automatically.
"We run through a simulation on a laptop, see how it works, and then load it onto the drones with a click of a button," says Natalie Cheung, drone light show boss at Intel.
Intel appears to have no plans actually sell its Shooting Star drone. Rather, it intends to fly them to publicly demonstrate the advantages of using unmanned aircraft in place of conventional pyrotechnics, which include better safety and the potential for more choreographed sequences. But beyond that, the technology demonstrates the advances being made in having autonomous drones work together to pull off certain tasks, something that has real potential to reshape things like construction, city maintenance and military defense.
You can hear from a few of the people involved in the project below.